Is There a Connection Between Mental Health and Intellectual Freedom?

General Interest, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Allyson Mower

The U.K. recently appointed a minister for loneliness. The minister, Tracey Crouch, will develop a government strategy to help individuals connect with others and to combat mental health disorders such as depression. I have to admit that the headline surprised me. Loneliness is so extreme it needs a government strategy? It turns out, though, that former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy considers loneliness to be an epidemic in America, too. Dr. Murthy called it a pathology which can lead to greater risk of “dementia, anxiety, and depression” which in turn negatively “impacts creativity, reasoning, and decision-making.”

Image of a sad emoticonI don’t normally think of loneliness as a pathology, but dementia, anxiety, and depression would all seem to have some sort of impact on intellectual freedom, it seems to me. But perhaps there’s a difference between intellectual freedom and mental wellness? If someone is depressed or anxious, does that also mean a lack of desire or motivation to use one’s intellect? That’s the argument Mario Livio makes in Why: What Makes Us Curious a book briefly described in an earlier post I wrote.

This got me thinking, again, about my local context in Salt Lake City, Utah. According to the Utah Department of Health, which tracks statistics about mental illness in the state through an online database called IBIS, “Utah has consistently higher rates of self-reported lifetime depression than the U.S. rate (20.8% vs. 17.6% in 2015).” The site defines depression as “having severe symptoms that interfere with a person’s ability to work, sleep, study, [concentrate], eat, and enjoy life.” Studying and concentrating seem like crucial activities when it comes to the freedom to use one’s mind. What does it take to concentrate? If we follow the definition of depression as provided by the Utah Department of Health, it would require an absence of those symptoms.  

Image of a wooden figure readingDr. Murthy has called this absence emotional wellbeing, which he also describes as a primary driver of overall health. In a state of emotional wellbeing, concentration would require consistent and sustained attention and a little bit of discipline. Any distracting element could break one’s concentration in any given moment, but being able to have enough energy to withstand the distraction seems crucial, too. If something or someone limits your ability to concentrate the required amount to read and study (i.e exercise your intellect), that seems like an item of concern for librarians, teachers, advocates of intellectual freedom, and other readers of this blog.

So what about the 79.2% of Utahns and 82.4% of the general population of Americans who do not report depression? There’s no Utah-specific study about reading/non-reading, but according to the Pew Research Center, about a quarter of Americans did not read a book either in whole or in part in 2016. Although the Pew survey did not ask respondents to also report on loneliness or mental disorders as an indicator of non-reading, there are obviously factors that impede Americans’ reading, studying, and concentrating. Time, interest, and preference could represent some possible outside factors. Lack of access to information could be another. Mario Livio lists fear and avoiding confusion as additional elements.

I think it’s a crucial question to explore. Perhaps the Utah Department of Health might consider adding an intellectual freedom or curiosity indicator to IBIS so that librarians and teachers can have a better understanding of the range of factors involved in reading and non-reading within Utah. Or maybe Pew Research Center could consider asking about mental health in their reading surveys of the general U.S. population. Or maybe I’ll do my own study (maybe).

Regardless, what are your thoughts on the question? Do you see a connection between mental health and intellectual freedom?

Allyson MowerAllyson Mower, MA, MLIS is head of Scholarly Communication & Copyright at the University of Utah Marriott Library. She’s very curious about curiosity, what drives people to uncover information, and how libraries of all types create demand for knowledge. As a tenured faculty member, she researches the history of academic freedom — a kind of intellectual freedom — and the history of authorship and scholarly communication at the institution. She provides the U of U community and the general public with information, tools, and services related to both copyright and publishing. Allyson was a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2008, was nominated as a 2012 Society for Scholarly Publishing Emerging Leader, and served as the U of U Academic Senate President in 2014. Find her on Twitter @allysonmower.

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